Saturday, September 27, 2014

Domicile Detention Denied

State v. Pelletier, 2014 VT 110 (mem.)

By Andrew Delaney

Mr. Pelletier just wants to go home. Unfortunately for Mr. Pelletier, he stands charged with first-degree murder.

As you may recall from another recent case involving the pretrial home detention statute, home confinement is allowed when a defendant is held in a “lack of bail” situation for more than seven days. There are three areas for a trial court to consider in determining whether to grant such a motion: (1) the offense’s nature; (2) prior convictions, history of violence, medical and mental health needs, supervision history, and risk of flight; and (3) risks or undue burdens associated with the placement.

Mr. Pelletier filed a motion for home confinement, proposing that he live at home and work on his 140-acre family farm. The trial court wasn’t sure that was such a hot idea because the GPS-monitoring system might not work with that large of an area.

The trial court then gave the factors a gander. As to the offense’s nature, the court noted that Mr. Pelletier was looking at 35-to-life potentially. The court also noted that Mr. Pelletier had bought a handgun just before the killing, performed the alleged killing away from the home when nobody else was home, and hid the body in a compost pile (I’ll admit, the lack of “what happened” in the opinion got to me, so here’s a WCAX article if you’re curious).

Though Mr. Pelletier’s criminal history consists solely of a DUI in ’99 and he has no prior history of violence or medical needs, the trial court noted that Mr. Pelletier was suicidal in May of this year and might choose to end his life on the farm faced with the potential for life in prison.

On the final factor, the trial court reasoned that while the alleged killing was an out-of-character act, that made predicting Mr. Pelletier’s future behavior all the more difficult. It’s kind of an if-he-acted-unusually-once-he-might-act-unusually-again proposition. I’m still trying to decide whether that’s paranoid, Zen, or some other animal entirely.

Bottom line is the trial court found Mr. Pelletier didn’t meet his burden and denied the motion for home detention. Mr. Pelletier appeals.

He argues that the trial court didn’t weigh the factors fairly, that there was no evidence that he was suicidal in May, and that the trial court didn’t look at all the good stuff he had going for him. Finally, he calls the trial court out on the aberrant-once-means-potentially-aberrant-again reasoning.

Unfortunately for Mr. Pelletier, the SCOV reviews this kind of case under an abuse-of-discretion—or as I like to call it, a “good-f***ing-luck-Chuck”—standard. The decision does have to be based on factors specific to the defendant, but other than that, the burden is on the defendant to show that he (or she) should be given home confinement.

The SCOV talks about that recent case (Whiteway I) mentioned above, in which the SCOV sent a home-detention-denial case back to the trial court because factors needed to be specific to the defendant. The SCOV also notes the follow-up case (Whiteway II), in which it held that it was “all good in the ‘hood” so long as the trial court made those defendant-specific findings.

Here, the SCOV reasons that the trial court’s findings were defendant specific. There was testimony about Mr. Pelletier’s mental state in May, which he didn’t refute with evidence that his mental state had improved. The SCOV reasons that the weight the trial court gave the factors was reasonable—the court did consider the good stuff, “but ultimately found his mental health needs and the risk of nonappearance outweighed these other factors.” As to the final argument, the SCOV reasons that this too was somehow defendant-specific because it “considered defendant’s character and the unpredictability of his behavior.”

Personal rant: I don’t get that last bit—sorry. The level of speculation required for this kind of reasoning is atmospheric. It’s lightning-might strike-twice-here analysis. It’s akin to saying, “Defendant could win the lottery, have nearly limitless resources, and therefore bail is set at ten million dollars.” Call it harmless error or say it’s outweighed by the other factors or something, but it’s not defendant-specific reasoning no matter how thin you slice the bologna. Any serious criminal act should be an aberrant act. When a defendant has no prior record to speak of, it’s a little disingenuous to say that because the defendant is now accused of a serious crime, it’s likely defendant will commit another serious crime by virtue of that aberrance. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

At any rate, the SCOV concludes that it was reasonable on the record before it for the trial court to deny the motion for home detention because Mr. Pelletier didn’t meet his burden.

Mr. Pelletier tried to supplement the record with the transcript of his May 2014 interview with the police (on which the “potentially suicidal” testimony was based), but the SCOV denies that motion because it can’t look at evidence not considered by the trial court. Similarly, the SCOV declines to consider Mr. Pelletier’s confined-to-the-house-and-not-work-on-the-farm proposal because it wasn’t presented below. The SCOV notes, however, that both these things can be raised in a new motion for home confinement.

So the SCOV affirms the trial court’s denial of Mr. Pelletier’s motion, while appearing to suggest that Mr. Pelletier may have better luck next time around. Now, wouldn’t it be interesting if this case’s progression provides a foil to Whiteway I and Whiteway II? We’ll keep you posted.

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